John Piper and Unconditional Election

“Now then, without any extenuation on the one hand, or exaggeration on the other, let us look upon this doctrine, call it what you please, naked and in its native colour. Before the foundations of the world were laid, God of his own mere will and pleasure fixed a decree concerning all the children of men why should be born unto the end of the world. This decree was unchangeable with regard to God, and irresistible with regard to man. And herein it was ordained, that one part of mankind should be saved from sin and hell, and all the rest left to perish forever and ever, without help, without hope. That none of these should have that grace which alone could prevent their dwelling with everlasting burnings, God decreed, for this cause alone, “because it was his good pleasure;” and for this end, “to show forth his glorious power, and his sovereignty over all the earth.” Now, can you, upon reflection, believe this?”

John Wesley, ‘Predestination Calmly Considered’ 14/15

(c) Epworth Old Rectory; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

It appears some can.


Piper’s most recent book is called ‘Five Points’ and, as you would guess, it is about the five points of Calvinism (although some claim he is actually a ‘seven point’ Calvinist). I would like to comment on all the five points of Calvinism in time but for now I wish to limit myself to just ‘Unconditional Election’ (which is chapter 6 in his book).

Piper defines unconditional election [UE from here] as:

“Election refers to God’s choosing whom to save. It is unconditional in that there is no condition man must meet before God chooses to save him. Man is dead in trespasses and sins. So there is no condition he can meet before God chooses to save him from his deadness.”

John Piper, ‘Five Points’ p.53

Other Calvinists will describe UE as God making a decision who to choose for salvation and decreeing it (deciding it) from eternity (that is to say before time itself and history began). This appears to be exactly the same thing as Piper is describing here.

Calvinist theologian Michael Horton describes UE like this:

“Out of his lavish grace, the Father chose out of the fallen race a people from every race to be redeemed through his Son and united to his Son in the Spirit. This determination was made in eternity, apart from anything foreseen in the believer.”

Michael Horton, ‘For Calvinism’ p.15

Both Calvinists are very clear that they are rejecting conditional election – the idea that God used his foreknowledge to elect people who would choose to believe in him as a gift of grace. They are both claiming that this election is not based on such foreknowledge.

This gets confusing when Piper then, immediately following my previous quote of his, states:

“We are not saying that final salvation is unconditional. It is not. We must meet the condition of faith, for example, in Christ in order to inherit eternal life. But faith is not a condition for election. Just the reverse. Election is a condition for faith.”

John Piper, ‘Five Points’ p.53

Now at first glance that looks like his two quotes contradict each other (and I think they could have been worded a lot easier if this book is intended for lay people – as it seems to be).

Try working it in reverse: To be able to be saved by God is conditional upon having faith and having faith is conditional upon being one of the elect. This is what I understand Piper to be saying. Keep in mind, however, that a charitable interpretation of Piper means that he should be read as a theistic compatibilist. In other words he thinks one can be held responsible for one’s actions (eg. for accepting or rejecting the gospel) despite being given that inclination to do so by the nature God has given you. That is to say, humans have a certain degree of ‘freedom’ but this is compatible with God determining that person to do what they do. This might seem utterly ridiculous to some because it tends to go against our common-sense ideas of freedom but it is logically consistent so long as you realize that ‘freedom’ is being reduced to the notion that you freely do what you were created to do by God through the desires and inclinations he gave you. (Of course – this raises the question of whether this is real freedom at all and whether one has genuine responsibility for one’s actions on such a definition.)

Piper then proceeds to cite Acts 13:48 (“…as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.”) and John 10:26 (“You did not believe because you are not among my sheep.”) as examples of election prior to faith but these texts do not necessarily support unconditional election and can be quite easily read in the context of conditional election. Piper certainly makes no case why they could not be.

His key passage for election being unconditional is, of course, Romans 9. This section from Romans is becoming more and more difficult for Calvinists to cite as if the meaning is plain and straightforward. It has been a passage which N.T Wright (broadly within the ‘Reformed’ camp himself) has suggested Calvinists have misunderstood.

Calvinist theologian G.C. Berkouwer (who rejected divine determinism) wrote concerning Romans 9-11:

“It is being accepted more and more that this passage is not concerned primarily with establishing a locus de praedestinatione as an analysis of individual election or rejection, but rather with certain problems which arise in the history of salvation.”

G.C. Berkouwer – quoted in Olson’s Against Calvinism p.122

Now Piper admits that some careful interpreters of Romans 9 do not see this passage as having to do with individual election at all but rather of groups and he is right to note this. What he appears to miss is that some also allow for individual election but election to an earthly duty rather than an eternal destination. Also Piper makes it sound as if there are only two possible models of interpretation for Romans 9 and nothing in between which is quite an oversimplification of the matter so say the least.

For example, Piper cites the election of Jacob over Esau (what self-respecting Calvinist does not cite this passage?) but he does not admit that the text itself suggests his election was with regard to the elder serving the younger (what was then a cultural oddity to say the least). The text does not state that God chose Jacob for his eternal salvation whilst Esau was damned. What was decided was who would serve who on earth. So there could indeed be individual election at work here but not in regard to their salvation.

Piper takes phrases such as “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy…” (Rom. 9:15) as having direct and obvious limiting consequences on human freedom but he does not explain that many scholars don’t read it that way. One evangelical scholar comments on this verse:

“Thus Paul argues for God’s absolute freedom and does not address himself to the measure in which we have freedom or how our freedom relates to God’s freedom. If God is free to do what he wills and if all who are saved are saved because God predestined them, then modern people are apt to ask. “Are we not reduced to the level of puppets?” But Paul is not discussing our freedom at all. We would like to have his thoughts on the matter, but that is not the question before him. He neither affirms of denies that we are free. He simply does not discuss the question at all. His big point here is that the relationship between God and sinners cannot be thought of simply in terms of justice. We have no claim on God, no rights before him. We are dependent on his mercy.”

Leon Morris, ‘The Epistle to the Romans’ p.358

One certainly has to wonder, after reading that, whether Piper’s case is quite as clear cut as he wants to make it sound. Yes God will have mercy on whom he will have mercy but Paul does not discuss who they are and to what extent they have a say in such matters. The point is that God is the sole instigator in salvation history and evangelical Arminians and Molinists can completely agree with this.

He also makes much of the talk of people being ‘hardened’ by God but even John Calvin appears to take a more Arminian approach to this text about Pharaoh when he states:

“Thus Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar and Sennacherib waged war against the living God… Yet God had aroused them all to carry out all these acts. He had turned them, willing evil and thinking evil – or rather, turned their evil will and their evil intention against Israel, and was making it prevail, sometimes to avenge the ungodliness of His people, sometimes to enhance their deliverance.”

John Calvin, ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’ 1536 edition 1.18.1

If Calvin himself thought this was a possible reading (although in compatibilist terms) why can’t an Arminian read the text as he suggests (although in incompatibilist terms)?

I’m no biblical scholar but I do know that Romans 9 is one of the most hotly contested passages, in terms of interpretation, in the entire Bible. Many top scholars (increasingly so of late) simply don’t read Romans 9 the way Piper and other Calvinists do and many of them are conservative evangelicals. N.T. Wright would be a very good example of one such in modern times. A growing number of Bible scholars tend to think a doctrinal system is being imposed on the text here and it was not something Paul was concerned with at all. Therefore I simply don’t find the argument persuasive that this passage has to be read on Calvinist terms and Piper’s reluctance to engage with other scholarly interpretations makes his case look all the weaker.

Piper then turns (all too quickly) to another favourite passage of the Calvinist – Ephesians 1. Again – even if this is referring to the election of individuals (and I think the case can be made that it is) the passage is not clear on whether the election is conditional or unconditional. Piper simply assumes it is talking about UE because he thinks that Romans 9 has already made the case. He does not interact with either Arminian or Molinist interpretations of this chapter at all.

He then claims that Romans 8:28-33 (the ‘golden chain’) is his strongest passage to demonstrate UE. He rightly notes that the first response of exegetes who differ with his reading is to point to verse 29 where it says that “those he foreknew he predestined”. It’s rather annoying for the Calvinist that this great list of events (foreknowing, predestination, calling, justification, glorification) appears to begin with God doing the opposite of what Calvinists claim UE is! Calvinists are usually at great pains to point out that UE is something God does without looking into the future to see if there is anything about us which makes us worthy of electing OR even that he looks ahead to see who will respond to his free gift of grace. Piper, rather boldly – one might even say too boldly, claims ‘foreknow’ “can’t” possibly mean that God foreknows who will freely respond to his grace and this he says is because in verse 30 it says the calling of God is sovereign. But I would suggest Piper has the cart before the horse here. He is imposing his view of God’s sovereignty on the text in order to get from the text his view of sovereignty. He only gets to take out of the text what he already brought to the text.

To make matters worse he then parodies the Arminian reading when he states:

“It can’t mean that [that God used his foreknowledge to see who would respond to his grace] because we have just seen from verse 30 the decisive cause of faith in the justified is not the human fallen will but the sovereign call of God.”

John Piper, ‘Five Points’ p.60

This is most disappointing and shows little regard for Arminian theology. Roger Olson is an Arminian theologian who has complained about this parody of Arminianism on many occasions. In one such passage he states:

“Knowledgeable Calvinists do not say that Arminians believe they have to work for their salvation; they say that Arminians and other non-Calvinists make the human decision of faith the “decisive factor” in salvation and therefore bring it back, however unintentionally, to salvation by good works. To Arminians, however, this accusation is ridiculous… In what situation in human experience is merely accepting a gift “the decisive factor” in having it? It is a factor, yes – but hardly the decisive one. Merely accepting a gift does not give one the right to boast.”

Roger Olson Against Calvinism p.170

Therefore Piper is rejecting only a parody of an Arminian reading of this text – or at best a liberal one. The Arminian can just as easily read this passage as affirming that the predestination of the called is based on God’s foreknowledge of those who will receive his gift of grace and not reject it when the Spirit gives them opportunity. An evangelical Arminian would, instead, affirm that the decisive factor in redemption is the loving character of God and his provision of salvation through the death of his Son who was a propitiation for our sins. Scripture is quite clear that this is the decisive factor in why anyone is saved at all.

Piper’s reasoning gets worse at this point and he asserts:

“God does not foreknow those who come to faith apart from his creating the faith, because there are no such people.”

John Piper Five Points p.60

How does this complaint not simply commit the fallacy of assertion? Piper first assumes there cannot be any people in the future who would respond to God’s grace and, having assumed that, then declares confidently what God can possibly know about the future! Again it’s unclear whether this phrase “apart from his creating the faith” is really just another parody of Arminianism as Pelagianism or not but it sounds suspiciously like such a mistake.

Piper then suggests that the meaning of ‘foreknow’ should be understood as in biblical texts such as Genesis 18:19, Jeremiah 1:5  and Amos 3:2 where God is said to foreknow people.

Biblical scholar James Dunn makes much the same point about this passage saying:

“προγινώσκω obviously means more than simple foreknowledge, knowledge before the event… It has in view the more Hebraic understanding of ‘knowing’ as involving a relationship experienced and acknowledged; hence commentators regularly and rightly refer to such passages as Gen. 18:19, Jer. 1:5, Hos. 13:5, Amos 3:2…”

James Dunn Romans 1-8, 38a Word Biblical Commentary p.482

But one should notice that this does not lead Dunn to the conclusion that this passage is about what Calvinists tend to claim it is about. This sheds serious doubts as to whether this passage is everything Piper wants it to be. Surely to know people, as an all-knowing God would, also means to know everything about them including all propositional knowledge of them? Can Piper really be suggesting that God only knew them in a very limited sense (that he was going to call them)? Piper certainly reads like that to me. But this would be the complaint Calvinists bring against open theists in suggesting that there are things God does not know about the future or which he potentially knows but chooses not to allow himself to know. It certainly appears to suggest that God cannot have access to counter-factual knowledge and I’m not sure that’s an admission many Calvinists would want to make since it would certainly make them plenty of friends in the open theist category! It’s also curious that Michael Horton’s definition of UE directly implied that God’s foreknowledge of their race was used in UE since he claimed that God had deliberately elected from “every race”. That certainly implies propositional knowledge of persons. As he does when he states that “…the kind of knowledge is not merely informational…” (p. 58 ‘For Calvinism’) which implies it is, nonetheless, a part of such knowledge. It would certainly be interesting to hear Piper and Horton have a conversation about that.

In his commentary on chapter 8 verse 39 Leon Morris states:

“Many scholars feel that we cannot take the verb [προγινώσκω] in this place to refer to no more than knowledge. They point out that in the Old Testament the equivalent means something like “choose in advance” (as in Jer.1:5; Amos 3:2). This must surely be borne in mind, but we must also remember that Paul’s next verb is predestined and we must be on our guard against making the two say the same thing.”

Leon Morris The Epistle to the Romans p.332

Even Piper, in interpreting ‘foreknew’ to mean ‘chose’, admits they are “virtually the same” in meaning but he does not make it clear what he means by this phrase and what the possible non-synonymity is yet it is precisely the non-synonymity here which is crucial.

Arminian and Molinist interpretations of this text appear to fit equally well if not perhaps better in that they don’t appear to need to artificially limit the semantic scope of προγινώσκω to mean some kind of foreknowledge of persons which excludes propositional knowledge of persons or counterfactual knowledge of persons. It is still quite possible to see the ‘calling’ of verse 30 as, what Calvinists would label, the ‘effectual’ calling if God has done such calling based on some foreknowledge of future persons. It is worth remembering that the evangelical Arminian is not claiming that God sees something intrinsically good in us worthy of saving but rather what a person will do with the grace they are given and therefore such a view does not suggest any salvation by works.

Piper finishes his chapter by citing Deuteronomy 7:7-8:

“It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you… but it is because the Lord loves you.”

He then comments:

“Read that carefully: he loves you because he loves you. He chose to do that in eternity.”

John Piper Five Points p.61

Well I would like to believe that I am reading that passage carefully but it is widely believed that this passage is about God’s corporate election of the nation of Israel and not a group who were elect to salvation. Can it be that the case for unconditional election is so sketchy that one must resort to pulling verses like this from their original context?

And is Piper addressing the reader of his book when he states “he loves you”? How can Piper possibly know if the reader of his book is one of the elect or not? I am reading the book and some of his fellow Calvinists (though not Piper himself) would claim I am not one of the elect and that God does not love me! This raises the epistemological dilemma of believing in UE.

A principle of good hermeneutics is to evaluate difficult passages in light of clearer ones and I would like to offer one passage which seems quite clear (certainly by contrast to the others cited by Piper):

“37 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 38 See, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Matthew 23:37-39 (ESV)

Let us read this passage as if we really did believe in UE. How can it be interpreted? As both Steve Lemke and Roger Olson have noted, the only consistent way of reading it is that Jesus is lamenting “God’s hardness of heart” (see Olson’s ‘Against Calvinism’ p.164). But the text cannot be read this way for two reasons (at least). One is that there is no reason to think Jesus’ lament is over God’s lack of love and every reason to think he is addressing the people of Jerusalem instead. Second is that this would suggest either a division of wills within the Godhead which has historically been rejected by official church doctrine or the belief that Jesus was ignorant of the Father’s salvific means at this time. Neither of these supposed explanations seem viable to the evangelical. Now the compatibilist Calvinist will probably claim that Jesus is blaming them in the same way a theistic compatibilist holds a person responsible for their actions. The problem with this view, as I have hinted at already, is that this will is one which is determined by God from eternity and therefore Jesus is still lamenting over what God has, ultimately, willed to happen.

R.T. France brings the obvious meaning of this passage to light when he explains:

“Jerusalem symbolizes the nation whose capital it is. Israel’s treatment of God’s messengers shows that a final choice has been made. It was Jesus’ mission to avert the punishment predicted in vv.35,36 by bringing Israel to repentance; he was willing (‘would I’ is literally ‘I wanted’) but they were not (‘would not’, the same verb).”

R.T. France Matthew, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, p.334

The passage is quite clear. The will of God is thwarted by the will of men. This may well create problems for the Calvinist’s doctrine of God’s sovereignty but then perhaps that indicates the Calvinist’s doctrine of sovereignty (at least as Piper expresses it) is not biblical enough? If our doctrine of the sovereignty of God makes a mockery of Jesus’ sorrow then perhaps it needs readdressing? This is, of course, no isolated incident either. It is a recurring theme which runs throughout the Biblical narrative that God desires certain things for his people and yet they resist his desires and purposes for them.

For me to even begin to be tempted into thinking UE is biblical I would need to understand how it can be reconciled with this passage and the related idea that God holds people morally responsible for their actions. My primary concern is it makes clear passages and themes in the Bible harder to understand and secondly that it creates huge philosophical problems as well.

Another aspect I find unsatisfactory about this chapter is Piper’s lack of facing the philosophical music in holding to UE. Piper must know some of the obvious philosophical complaints raised against UE and yet he offers no possible solutions. This is where some Calvinists unfortunately (and somewhat hypocritically) begin to attack philosophy as if such a discipline has no overlap with systematic theology or philosophy of religion (both of which Calvinists do continually and unapogetically – one might even suggest that systematic theology is a greater passion in Calvinism than many other branches of the church – just look at how many are written by them!).

The great Calvinist B.B. Warfield once philosophically mused:

“We may ask, no doubt, why God does not extend his saving grace to all; and why, if he sends it to some only, he sends it to just those some to whom he sends it rather than to others. These are not wise questions to ask.”

B.B. Warfield, Election Loc 190/199 Kindle edition

After claiming such mysteries are better left to God Warfield himself proceeds to offer a philosophical explanation almost immediately following! He says:

“The marvel of marvels is not that God, in his infinite love, has not elected all of this guilty race to be saved, but that he has elected any.”

B.B. Warfield, Election Loc 207 Kindle edition

Whilst I would agree in part that it is amazing God should save any at all (in the sense that he is not duty bound to do so and he would still be just not to) I cannot possibly see how one can reason that a God of, in Warfield’s own words, “infinite love” would choose so few people in modern times to be saved (especially when one considers that many Calvinists don’t think most Christians worldwide are genuine Christians). The empirical evidence appears to suggest that God’s love is very limited – that is if UE is true of course! Martin Luther appears to have spotted this embarrassing conclusion too when he says:

“That there must be room for faith, therefore, all that is believed must be hidden. Yet it is not hidden more deeply than under a contrary appearance of sight, sense and experience… Thus God conceals His eternal mercy and loving kindness beneath eternal wrath, His righteousness beneath unrighteousness. Now, the highest degree of faith is to believe that He is merciful, though He saves so few and damns so many; to believe that He is just, though of his own will He makes us perforce proper subjects for damnation, and seems (in Erasmus’ words) “to delight in the torments of poor wretches and to be a fitter object for hate than for love.” If I could by any means understand how this same God, who makes such a show of wrath and unrighteousness, can yet be merciful and just, there would be no need for faith. But as it is, the impossibility of understanding make room for the exercise of faith when these things are preached and published…”

Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will (translation Packer and Johnston 1957) p.101

Luther appears to see the consequences of UE far more clearly than most modern Calvinists. Many today will suggest that UE is a ‘mystery’ or a ‘tension’ but Luther admits this doctrine makes God look like a moral monster. But then, in a hugely implausible fashion, he tries to reverse this problem by claiming it makes the doctrine more probable to be true because it requires more (blind?) ‘faith’ to believe it! It’s hard to see Luther here as saying anything less than that Christian belief in this doctrine requires one to be entirely unreasonable about one’s theistic beliefs. Luther continues by suggesting that those who want to resolve such ‘paradoxes’ would do better to keep quiet. Is this perhaps why so many modern Calvinists refuse to continue the conversation about UE at this juncture? Whether they do or not I do not think that such appeals to fideism are responsible and that there are more reasonable, and Biblically faithful, alternatives to UE.

Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell have also noted, UE leads us to the logical conclusion that you and I are capable of having more loving concern for our fellow human beings than even God does since we desire their salvation and yet God appears not to (and, on compatibilism, he could have done so for all without violating their ‘free will’). Walls and Dongell cite Piper talking about how he appears to hope his sons are in the elect but that he confesses they might not be. Whilst applauding Piper’s consistency to apply this principle to his own children they ask the obvious question – does Piper love his sons more than God does? [See: Walls and Dongell, ‘Why I am not a Calvinist’ p.162]

A common philosophical defense of UE is that God needs to display all facets of his character and therefore God needs to display his wrath and this is why there are the non-elect. Somehow God gets more glory from this scenario than if he had created a world where everyone was saved for eternity. But Walls and Dongell note that one of the most famous quotations from Piper’s theology is that:

“God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. This is perhaps the most important sentence in my theology… Therefore God’s pursuit of his own glory is not at odds with my joy…”

John Piper, Let the Nations be Glad p.26

Walls and Dongell note:

“Given that Piper heartily affirms this, it’s puzzling why he believes God isn’t fully glorified unless some are consigned to damnation.”

Walls and Dongell, Why I am not a Calvinist p.178

Why is it that many Calvinists appear to think that God could not be seen to be just unless he displays his wrath? (Please note: this is not taught anywhere in the Bible itself – rather it is a philosophical assumption smuggled in to attempt to rescue God from the charge of being unjust.) Calvinists often use the analogy of a human judge so let us do so here for a minute. If a human judge finished his career after twenty cases and had not sent one single person to jail would we necessarily conclude he was less than just? What if this judge could fully and rationally explain and vindicate all his decisions to us so we could see he had made the correct verdict? Who then would think him less than just? But this is exactly what the Calvinist is claiming. A perfectly just judge cannot possibly vindicate everyone but must display some wrath. The Bible certainly makes no such claim so this appears to be a deeply held philosophical commitment. The problem is there appears to be no good reason for thinking it true and good reasons for thinking it’s simply not true. (Even if it were true why did God need to show wrath to humans when he could have demonstrated his wrath to the fallen angels or why does he appear to need to show his wrath to such a huge number of human beings instead of a tiny few?) This is where the Calvinist is likely to claim such philosophical speculation is not helpful but I contend this dialogue killer is both hypocritical and arbitrary (in that this principle only gets used when UE is shown to be contrary to good reason).

In my opinion conditional election is a better fit both with the biblical texts Piper cites and with our reason than UE.


Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy on Romans 9:


About aRemonstrant'sRamblings

I graduated in philosophy of religion many years ago and have since acquired my PGCE and now teach religion, ethics and philosophy.
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